Ready Player One is the much awaited film adaptation of the successful sci-fi novel by Ernest Cline (who also co-wrote the screenplay). It’s a dazzling virtual reality treasure hunt brought to the screen under the assured vision of “game-changing” director Steven Spielberg (a trailer pun that incites the harshest of forehead slaps). From elaborate chase sequences to the video game rush of a timer reaching its limit, Ready Player One is an enjoyable ride but one that struggles to grow beyond its stunning imagery and nostalgic references.
Set in 2045, the film focuses on Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a struggling youth from a broken home living in the stack slums Columbus, Ohio. The world having been ravaged by climate change and overpopulation, the only escape afforded to the general public is a virtual reality existence in the OASIS – an interconnected digital world where one has the freedom to live out their greatest dreams and achieve coin tokens stronger than legitimate currency.
After the OASIS’s co-creator, the legendary Steve Wozniak-inspired James Halliday (Mark Rylance), passes away, he leaves behind an epic Easter egg hunt that will award its winner full legal control of the enterprise. The quest: finding three hidden keys bathed in the memory of Halliday’s nerdy passions. After Watts discovers the first key, he exposes himself as a real world target of Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) – a scheming corporate mogul seeking to take control and monetize the OASIS for himself.
Akin to the plot’s driving force, Ready Player One is chock full of Easter eggs and references of its own. It’s live-action intellectual property potpourri unlike anything seen since the Spielberg-produced/Robert Zemeckis-directed Who Framed Roger Rabbit (animated flicks such as Wreck-It Ralph and the Lego films aside). Zemeckis, whose Back to the Future DeLorean is on full display here, is among many visionaries from the 70’s and 80’s paid tribute within the film. One particular extended sequence (which I would dare not spoil) features a remarkable recreation of a horror classic seen amusingly through the eyes of a character unfamiliar with the film. It is doubtless that Player One will be paused and studied by nostalgia-goggled fans with a determined flare similar to the protagonist egg hunters themselves.
Fortunately, these innumerable references never excessively commandeer the spotlight and serve to accentuate the multifaceted world of the OASIS and the enigmatic mind of its creator well. Who can’t crack a smile of the DeLorean time machine whizzing away from Jurassic Park‘s T-Rex and Akira‘s motorcycle whilst dodging overhead blows from King Kong?
On the other hand, where the film does show its cracks is within its overall stakes and characters. Despite the quality performances of Tye Sheridan (X-Men: Apocalypse‘s Cyclops) and Olivia Cooke (Ouija), the film doesn’t invest much time defining much of its supporting cast with some clunky lines of direct exposition doing little to fill in the gaps effectively. Ben Mendelsohn‘s (Rogue One) villain comes across as a threatening John Hughes-era principal rather than igniting the danger of the 80’s most iconic villains (many of which have quick-eyed cameos). Similarly, as exciting as the on-screen action may be in the virtual world, it is difficult to become invested in an avatar’s death undercutting much of the peril at hand with the subconscious understanding of a safety net. When the threat eventually bleeds into the real world, the film’s grip tightens more efficiently.
One thematic interest of note is the exploration of exclusive online relationships outside of the tangible world. It is, of course, a timely statement in today’s preponderance of internet culture. Deep lifestyles and bonds are fashioned from the safe anonymity of one’s portal. This lays the groundwork for a vulnerable dilemma when Wade impulsively pursues a more human connection with another avatar. Why threaten to break the sanctuary of a dreamworld in turn for the flawed, soberness of reality?
Overall, Ready Player One is a game worth playing. It doesn’t reach the brilliant, emotional heights of, ironically, 80’s era Spielberg, but it is a fun enough escape into its own oasis. For Easter weekend, there couldn’t be a flashier Easter egg hunt.